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Russia Asks Lebanon to Close Its Airspace

The announcement potentially signals a new phase in Moscow's air war in Syria.

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BEIRUT — The news first came in from Lebanese Druze political leader Walid Jumblatt’s Twitter account: “The Russians ordered Lebanon that for three days our airspace is to be closed.”

(Jumblatt, who owns the best Twitter account of Lebanon’s political class, soon followed up his scoop with tweets featuring emojis of aliens, planes, angry red-faced men, and sarcastic comments about Lebanon’s independence).

While it turns out that Lebanese airspace will not be completely closed, the Russian military does seem like it will be doing something unusual over Lebanese skies over the next several days. Shortly after an announcement by the national news agency that Russian training and maneuvers “will bring air traffic to and from Beirut’s airport to a complete halt,” Transportation Minister Ghazi Zeaiter told Reuters that the government had rejected the Russian request. Airlines flying out of Lebanon have found new routes out of the country to avoid the Russian military operations, which will allow flights to continue, albeit with significant delays.

Not everyone believes that military drills are the sole reason for this dramatic move. “This could be a lot of things, but is probably about the Russians using Lebanese airspace for Syria operations,” said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The question is: Is it to attack ISIS, or other groups?”

So far, most Russian strikes in Syria have been focused on northern Syria – in areas that would not require cruise missiles launched from the Mediterranean Sea to fly over Lebanon to reach their targets. However, if Russia begins targeting rebels in Damascus or in southern Syria, cruise missile strikes would likely have to travel through Lebanese airspace. The Islamic State has little to no presence among anti-government forces in those areas, however.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said yesterday that six Russian warships were in the Mediterranean Sea, and participating in military operations in Syria. Today, Russian warships in the Caspian Sea launched 18 cruise missiles on anti-government positions in northern Syria – part of a four-day barrage of over 100 cruise missile attacks in Syria, which could signal a new phase of the Russian intervention there.

Whether the Lebanese are going to start seeing Syria-bound cruise missiles flying overhead still remains to be seen. But the dramatic announcement does suggest that Russia’s military operation is about to take a new turn.

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

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